All posts by Richard L. Smith

A Mind That Fears

Six times in Deuteronomy, God’s intent for Israel focused on acquiring the fear of the Lord (5:29; 6:2, 2x, and “learn to fear the Lord” in 14:23; 17:20; 31:12). In 4:10, God commanded Moses,  “Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.”

In Deuteronomy, God-fearers were typified by an intellectual acknowledgment of God’s voice: “my words” (4:10), “commandments” (5:29), “statutes” (6:2, 24), and “all the words of this law written in this book” (28:58). Behaviorally, those who possessed a heart that fears “serve” and “swear” by the Lord’s name (6:13), “walk in his ways” (8:6), “hold fast to him” (10:20, “obey his voice” (13:4), “read” God’s word (17:19), and “purge evil” from their midst (21:21).

Similarly, throughout the Old Testament, godly fear signified intellectual humility and ethical rectitude typified by Proverbs 3:7: “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.”  So, for example:

Abram did not withhold Isaac from sacrifice, even though it was inconceivable (Gen 22:12).

Joseph rejected Potiphar’s wife’s enticement as a “great wickedness” (39:9).

The Hebrew midwives disobeyed Pharaoh to protect the baby Moses (Exod 1:17).

Yahweh-fearing servants of Pharaoh sheltered their livestock during the plagues (Exod 9:20).

Israelite leaders would not accept bribes (Exod 18:21).

Hebrew kings ruled justly (2 Sam 23:3).

Obadiah feared the Lord and hid the prophets from the wicked king, Ahab (1 Kings 18:4).

And those who still “feared the Lord” after the exile “esteemed his name” (Mal 3:16).

Today, are we also guided by the fear of God? Can you and I point to decisions, actions, or imaginations, we did not embrace because we knew they would dishonor the Lord? Or can you and I point to decisions or actions we did take which did, in fact, dishonor the Lord?

When do not fear the Lord in thought and deed, we should remember the prayer of confession from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent, for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.


Recently, Bill Edgar retired as professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary. I urge you to read this tribute posted in The Gospel Coalition: ‘Learned Defense’ in Cultural Crisis: William Edgar’s Legacy.

I also want to tell you about my relationship with Bill Edgar. I first met Bill and Barbara in the fall of 1989, when he was a new professor. I visited Westminster at that time and providentially our paths crossed.

We talked for a good while. I did not know what to expect of a seminary professor, but he broke the mold of what I imagined, which was a stodgy, aloof, and cerebral scholar. Bill was, rather, warm, engaging, and quite interesting. I told him about my admiration for a French thinker, Jacques Ellul. Bill, who had served as a missionary in France for a decade, was quite knowledgeable about Ellul. (In fact, he was very knowledge about many subjects.) Bill then spoke his first blessing on my life and told me, “You will be a good Westminster student.”

I thoroughly enjoyed my apologetics classes with Bill during my master’s studies. He often brought interesting material to provoke our thinking. For instance, he played a video designed for children called Gryphon, a clever piece of propaganda concerning New Age spirituality. I remember feeling rage at the audacity of that film. But, indeed, it made me think, as did many lessons that Bill taught. (In fact, after almost twenty-five years, I still use the video for instructional purposes.)

Bill encouraged me to explore my interests. I wrote papers about ideas and thinkers that were not normally considered apologetical themes. After I began my doctorate studies, with Bill as my advisor, we began the Friday Forums for open discussions about theological issues. Many times I joined him for lunch at his house, or we met at our favorite pub. Bill and Barbara practiced intellectual hospitality, which I suppose they learned from Frances Schaeffer.

Which brings me to the second blessing. I prayed a lot about pursuing a doctorate. At one of meals together, Barbara said to me, “Richard, you must do a doctorate because you have too many questions.”

Towards the end of my studies, I sought God for direction after seminary. Bill, knowing my love for Europe, suggested that I contact the International Institute for Christian Studies (now Global Scholars) about serving as an academic missionary. About eighteen months later, our family arrived in Prague, and I began teaching non-Christians at a new college there. After our first year, we felt compelled to return―but we lacked $41,000. Little did I know at the time, that behind-the-scenes Bill urged a wealthy benefactor to support us, and he did. After we returned to Prague, I told this story to a non-Christian student. She commented, “It was a miracle!” And it was.

Perhaps the greatest blessing was the sermon Bill delivered at my first wife, Karen’s, funeral in 2002. His remarks were full of biblical wisdom and comfort. You should read it (below).

Finally, when I wrote a book about thinking based on the Old Testament, I dedicated the text to the those who molded my own thought: “I have learned from many excellent teachers . . . Cornelius Van Til, John M. Frame, and William Edgar explain the complex nature of human thought with biblical-theological sensitivity.”

Quite honestly, you should pray that God provide a Bill and Barbara Edgar in your life as well.

You can read his many thoughtful posts and articles here. 

His review of my book is here.

This is Bill’s sermon at Karen’s memorial service:

William Edgar, PhD
September 21, 2002

Dear Richard, Christine, Stephanie, Louis, and dear family and friends: I want to join these many voices and express, on behalf of Barbara and myself, our deepest condolences. We commiserate with you over this great loss, and want you to know, whatever else may be said, you are not alone. There is, of course, a loneliness from such a tragedy that only the Lord God, the Heavenly Father, can comfort. But inasmuch as we can be your friends, your helpers, your companions on the hard journey, we’re there for you.

This will be very simple. Here are some questions, five of them, that you must be asking, and that we all may be asking at this time. If there be answers, if there be any comfortable words, if there be a revelation from Heaven, then it is good to hear them.

First, you’ll be asking, why? Why did this have to happen? Your life’s companion, your mother, your daughter, and our very good friend, cut off at a young age, through a cruel disease. Why? You are in good company to ask. No less a spiritual person than the psalmist asks this question a lot.

“What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you?” (Ps 30:9)

“Why have you forsaken me?… O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night but I find no rest.” (Ps 22:1-2)

No less a visionary than the prophet asks it as well.

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” (Hab. 1:2)

Be assured that the Christian faith never skirts the question. Nor does it ever make evil to be anything less than evil. Evil is real. It is opaque. It is obstinate. It is perverted. We do not have a religion of detachment, but one, which can stare death in the face and say, “What, are you doing here? You don’t belong.” Some come to the conclusion there can be no God. But, as W. H. Auden found out, only if there is a God can we have right and wrong, and call a spade a spade.

As you know, God has wonderful answers for all these. But he usually does not frame them in the terms required by the question. The first answer we find may seem stoical, yet it is anything but. It is the answer of Job, in the midst of his great sufferings, as he tries to get through to God.

“Behold, I go forward, but he is not there, and backward, but I do not perceive him; on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him; he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him; But he knows the way that I take…” (Job 23:9-10)

In a powerful way, this is deeply comforting. God knows. He knows me. He knows the way I take. We don’t understand. We don’t have the answers. God does. What good would it do us to know all the reasons, anyway? How comforting would that be? Maybe a little. But it would not bring any lasting peace. People get desperate for answers at times like these. They make up foolish things, like, “God needed her in his choir.” Or, the innocuous, “It was a blessing.” “It leads to improvement.” “What a beautiful testimony,” etc. No, these are hopeless. It’s evil, and let’s face it. But God knows. He has reasons. And because he is a God who is good, his reasons are good. He’s not safe, but he is good. (C. S. Lewis’ Narnia)

Second, where were you, O God, in all this? Where was God when we needed him? If he had been more concerned, would he not have prevented this? Could he not have healed Karen, and spared so much grief?

Again, this question puts us in very good company. Both Mary and Martha asked Jesus the same question upon the death of their brother Lazarus. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” they remarked.

Was he not there? No, he was not there in the flesh. But Jesus brings two answers that make it plain that he was, and is, and will be there: a far greater and more meaningful presence than simply being physically around when bad things happen. First, he makes that extraordinary assertion: “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” There is a world, far more real, and far more certain, even than this present, sorrowful world of sin and misery and death. It is the world of life, of eternal life. It is the world of knowing and being known by God. It is the world of communion and friendship and conversation with him. It is the resurrection. Where do we go to find it? To Jesus. Karen knew that, and so she was already enjoying that part of resurrected life to which we have a right even now. We who trust in Christ are dead to sin and alive to God, and death no longer has dominion over us. (Rom. 6:6-11)

Second, Jesus himself not only wept, but also was furious over the death of their brother Lazarus, who was also his friend. And in his mournful fury, he went down to the grave and called him forth. With the voice with which he brought the worlds into being, the voice that calls the dry bones of the valley to live, Jesus calls him by name, and commands him to live. How could he do this? Because a week later, he would suffer for the sins of the world, his voice would not command but implore a deaf father, “why have you forsaken me?” And he would enter his own tomb. But because he was obedient unto death, he would come bursting out of the grave, full of life-giving Spirit, filled with resurrection power, which he freely gives to all who ask it of him. Karen knew he was there, and even through the sad reality of her broken body, she radiated the greater reality, not worthy to be compared, of the glory of God.

Third, what’s the good of this? If “all things work together for good,” then why did this have to happen? Who benefits from this?

We must be very cautious here. Suffering is not good. Evil is against the good. Death is an enemy. The Bible curses people who call good evil, and evil good. So, when it says, all things work together for good, it does not mean all things are good. The key idea is working together. In French, it’s concert. All things concert for the good.

So, what good can emerge from this evil? For one thing, God is known in weakness. We Americans have a hard time with this. We believe God must identify with success. But, the Bible has another take. Jacques Ellul is one of Richard’s favorite authors. Listen to what he says: “He is a God incognito who does not manifest himself in great organ music or sublime ceremonies, but who hides himself in the surprising face of the poor, in suffering (as in Jesus Christ), in the neighbor I meet, in fragility.”

We meet God in fragility. Karen was an amazing witness, a solace, and a comfort, to many who knew her, both in strength and in weakness. So many have said it. But, it is true. Her quiet strength, her humor in the face of negative diagnoses, this was contagious. And, Richard will be the first to tell you that it helped him get priorities straight. You’ll admit it, Richard, it was hard for you when you realized the work in Prague was not possible in the same way, given Karen’s condition. You had to come home. Maybe you wrestled with God. You certainly knew the frustration of managing things from a distance, and letting others take over for you. But, did not God do a wonderful work in your heart? We have all been astonished and delighted to see that in faithfulness and love, you devoted your time and attention to Karen? Did not your love, already strong, grow even deeper? Her suffering drove you to care for the things that really matter, and to relativize ministries and causes that will always be there. We’ve learned so much from you Richard, and we are deeply grateful.

Furthermore, Karen’s death shows us that death has lost the battle. It is overcome, swallowed up in victory. We take great courage in this. Not everyone dies so well, so peacefully as Karen. But those who do show the way to those who may not. You will remember at the end of the Pilgrim’s Progress, on their final journey through the deep river to the Celestial City, Christian loses nerve. And Hopeful has to remind him, “These troubles and distresses that you go through in these waters, are no sign that God has forsaken you; but are sent to try you, whether you will call to mind that which heretofore you have received of his goodness, and live upon him in your distress.” and then they both see Jesus, and take courage, and see the enemy only as still as a stone, impotent. “Thus they got over,” says the text. We saw Karen beginning to cross and we who may tend to sink down take great courage in her clear sight of Jesus.

Fourth, where is Karen now? Will we see her again? What happens at death? The psalmist who asked, “Will the dust praise you?,” knew in part what we know more fully. Here’s one of the best parts of the gospel. Yes we will see her again, and she’ll be there to greet us. “But we do not want you to be uninformed,” says the apostle, “about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others who have no hope.” We do grieve. This is a sad day, not a happy one. But we grieve with hope that breaks through, knowing that we will see Karen again. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Thess. 4:13 ff.) Heaven will be the greatest reunion, the greatest homecoming imaginable, all orchestrated by the one who left his family, his glory in Heaven, to come and fetch us and make us his bride.

So now, we wait. We’re sad because she is gone. She is herself waiting, like the souls under the altar, asking Jesus when he will come back to earth and finish the work of bringing justice to the land. And Jesus is saying to her, “Take this white robe of my righteousness, and rest a little longer, till the number of dead is complete. And then you can ride with me back to earth, and share in the final victory over sin and evil. And then, Richard, and Stephanie and Christine, and all who are close to her, will be reunited and nothing… nothing will separate us ever again.”

Fifth, and last, what do we do now? How do we spend our time while we wait for that great day?

I’ve already said that we wait. We wait with God-given patience. But we wait not in passive inactivity. There is work to be done. We do so with added motivation. We now do it to honor her memory, to emulate her example. As the hymn puts it:

Come, labor on.
Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear!
No arm so weak but may do service here:
By feeble agents may our God fulfill his righteous will;

Come, labor on.
No time for rest, till glows the western sky,
Till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie,
And a glad sound comes with the setting sun, “Servants, well done.”

And yet, and yet, even this meaningful life we can lead, and will continue to lead throughout eternity, good as it is, cannot be the first and the last answer. You see, we have something far better, far more precious than a host of good reasons for bad things. We have God himself. We are his, and, amazing truth, he is ours too. And so, what we do is to know him, and to enjoy him, and to give him praise and glory. But we do not praise a faraway god, a distant deity. We praise the God who has made himself known to us by sharing our miserable condition:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction… For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”  Amen.


A Passionate Plea On Behalf Of Christian Scholarship – Guest Blog

Keith Campbell

URGENT PLEA! I recently had a conversation with a well meaning brother in Christ (I’ll call him “Joel”), a conversation that I’ve had at least a hundred times over the years. Joel-–– firmly, confidently and quite condescendingly––said to me that biblical scholars are worthless and a waste of time. All they do, he said, is sit around and discuss worthless things and confuse the “common Christian” (his words, not mine). They should spend their time doing more important things for the Kingdom.

Okay, I understand. Just like in any profession, there are those who don’t contribute much. Fair point. But, hear me well…very well: Joel, and 99% of Earth’s population, cannot read one word––NOT ONE SINGLE WORD––of the Bible without depending on scholars!

Seriously. Take the New Testament, for example. Your New Testament was transcribed from thousands of ancient parchments by scholars, and then translated from Greek into English by other scholars. This is no easy task. It takes a lifetime for one scholar to be able do this for usually just one book of the Bible. And, these scholars stand on the shoulders of literally tens of thousands of other scholars before them. Unless you can read Koine Greek in the original parchments of the first several centuries of the first millennium (or ancient Hebrew), you cannot read your Bibles without the help of scholars (including the Kings James Version and even modern Greek versions).

Besides being unable to read one single word of the Bible without the help of scholars, almost everything your Sunday School teacher and pastor mention on Sunday mornings (aside from most illustrations) comes either directly or indirectly from hundreds of thousands of scholars, throughout thousands of years, who spent lifetimes thinking, debating, and writing so that others can say these kinds of things in just a few simple, easy seconds, such as: (1) “There are four Greek words for the word ‘love’ in the New Testament….”; (2) “In the Roman world, crucifixion was considered the most humiliating ways to die.”; (3) “What this biblical word means is…”; and the list goes on and on and on and on and on!

So, here’s my plea. Please don’t dishonor good, Christian, Jesus- and Bible-loving scholars. In fact, thank them! Your ability to simply read the Bible depends on them.


“Try Me And Know My Thoughts!”

God is omniscient. He knows all our thoughts (spoken and unspoken). Psalm 94:11 proclaims: “The LORD knows the thoughts of man” (“They are but a breath.”) Similarly, Psalm 139:2b says: “You discern my thoughts from afar.” God declares: “For I know the things that come into your mind” (Ezek 11:5). Amos 4:13a states: “He who forms the mountains and creates the wind, and declares to man what is his thought.” Additionally, God depicts his knowledge utilizing the image of the heart (mind): “Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the LORD; how much more the hearts of the children of man!” (Prov 15:11). And David wrote: “The LORD searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought” (1 Chron 28:9).

However, God does not simply observe passively but scrutinizes our intellectual activity—in real time, 24/7. Several terms are used to express this activity: “test,” “try,” “prove,” “search,” “search out,” and “examine.” The Lord declares: “I the LORD search the heart and test the mind” (Jer 17:10). Others testify about him: “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tests hearts” (Prov 17:3); “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the heart” (Prov 21:2); “If you say, ‘Behold, we did not know this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?” (Prov 24:12); and “O LORD of hosts, who tests the righteous, who sees the heart and the mind” (Jer 20:12).

In the Old Testament mental piety appears in heartfelt petitions that invite divine testing. These are prayers for intellectual and motivational purification. David implored the Lord: “Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and my mind” (Psalms 26:2). Psalm 139:23 states: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!” Psalm 19:4 declares: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight.”

Perhaps the most poignant expression of intellectual piety and redemptive epistemology is Psalm 131:1—2.

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.

Do you, Christian thinker, pray this way also?

Beware of Utopia

Because human beings are created as the imago Dei, we are hard-wired for extension, development, economic growth, even globalization. But, because we are fallen, the usual result are misguided visions of utopia on earth. From these we produce conquest, empire, mono-culturalism (consumerism, for example), subjugation, exploitation, plunder, and extinction. As a matter of course we often create cultures that are nothing short of abusive, inhumane, and unjust.

Clearly, “east of Eden” (Gen 3:24) and “under the sun” (Eccl 1:9) the human project is flawed. Existence is conditioned by finitude, falleness, and God’s curse (Gen 3:14–19; Ps 90). This is the “present evil age” (Gal 1:4), as Paul wrote. As a result, there will never occur in this eschatological epoch a utopia through communism or socialism, capitalism or consumerism, Islam, or any of the myriad alternative spiritualities. This side of eternity, there will never be a true “holy fill in the blank empire.”

Christians should be continuously wary of incarnations of the cultural mandate gone awry.

The reality is that history is full of failed and tragic experiments in culture building and identity formation. Consider the many corrupt leaders and violent empires of destruction, beginning with Babel: ancient empires such as Pharaoh’s kingdom of the sun-god or Caesar’s Pax Romana, the medieval Holy Roman Empire, modernity’s myth of progress, and ideologies like Nazism, communism, and totalitarianism.

We should honestly ask ourselves: How many millions have perished because of the lust for empire and its cousin, colonialism, throughout human history? God alone knows the suffering and injustice inflicted due to the divine right of kings and manifest destinies. How often have lands been acquired, peoples dispersed, raw materials confiscated, or access to the sea or trade routes expropriated for purposes of security, gain or glory? How often has mankind raped the earth of its natural resources, failing to steward God’s goodness? How many people have been enslaved or exploited for want of manpower or greed? And most importantly, how often has Christianity affiliated with the powerful and prosperous, but overlooked the victims of empire: the poor, exploited, enslaved, abused, and condemned? Surely, for all this creation “mourns” (Jer 4:28; 14:2; Hos 4:3).

Christians should, therefore, be continuously wary of incarnations of the cultural mandate (Gen 1:26-28, Psalm 8) gone awry. Whenever we hear a neo-Babelite battle cry, “Let us build ourselves a city . . . that we can make a name for ourselves” (Gen 4:11a); whenever would-be Pharaohs exclaim, “Who is the Lord?” (Exod 5:2); whenever God’s people declare “Give us a king to lead us” (1 Sam 8:6); or whenever an ideology proposes to “put an end to war and set all things in order” (spoken about Caesar and Pax Romana), the church should take heed. The impetus may be religious or philosophical, but the social and economic manifestations are usually totalitarian and theocratic. The forms can be explicitly religious (Islam or medieval Catholicism), ideologically secular (communism, National Socialism, Imperial Japan, North Korean Juche, or even secular humanism), or implicitly religious (consumerism).




Jan Hus (c. 1373–1415) is one of my heroes. He was a Czech religious reformer and a forerunner of the Reformation. He modeled pious intellectuality―under great duress.

At ten years of age, Hus was sent to a monastery. Not long after, he was sent to Prague to study, because he was clearly intelligent. In 1393, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Prague. Three years later, he got a Master’s degree and began to teach at the university. Hus became Dean of the philosophical faculty in 1401 and was designated a candidate for the Doctor’s degree in theology. In 1409, he was elected Rector. He was also ordained as a priest and was well-known for his theological writing and preaching. In addition, he introduced improvements to writing in his native language.

Hus was appointed a preacher at the newly established Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. He taught in Czech, so that listeners could understand. In 1401, he discovered the English Reformer, John Wycliffe, and he was deeply impacted by his theology. Hus translated and distributed his works, even though they were condemned by the Church. Hus embraced Wycliffe’s teaching about the primacy of Scripture. He echoed his criticism of the papacy and his demand for reforms concerning indulgences and clerical corruption.

The religious and social context in the Czech lands was very complex and tumultuous. Political and nationalistic intrigue occurred between the Czechs and Germans. Both wanted to control territory, wealth, and religion. Both struggled to dominate the university. Both curried favor with the Pope(s) and church hierarchy. And both rejected intrusive reform or upheaval brought about by Wycliffe and Hus.

Hus Memorial, Prague

The Catholic church was torn by dissent. During Hus’s lifetime, three Popes vied for supremacy. Each appealed to political, religious, and educational leaders for support. Clerical leadership abused and demeaned the lower clergy. The Church imposed onerous taxationwithin their lands and possessed enormous wealth. Bribes were paid for favors and power. Indulgences were marketed to finance ungodly agendas. Ecclesiastical offices and privileges were sold.

Meanwhile, Hus’s influence grew steadily through his teaching, preaching, and writing. He spoke out against corruption and the use of force by the Church. As a result, he drew the ire of Church leadership. They ordered him to stop preaching and spreading Wycliffe’s heretical ideas. Hus refused and continued his ministry.

When he was pressured to affirm unacceptable doctrines at the university, he declared, “Even if I should stand before the stake which has been prepared for me, I would never accept the recommendations of the theological faculty.” When he was invited to the Council of Constance to defend his views, he said that he would repent―if convinced from the Scriptures.

Though he was promised safe travel the Council, he was betrayed, arrested, and condemned to die at the stake. Before his death, he reportedly prophetically declared about future Reformers, “You may kill a weak goose, but more powerful birds, eagles and falcons, will come after me.” When asked a last time if he would recant, he said, “God is my witness that the things charged against me I never preached. In the same truth of the Gospel which I have written, taught, and preached, drawing upon the sayings and positions of the holy doctors, I am ready to die today.” As he breathed his last, he prayed, “Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on us!”

Hus taught with intellectual integrity, pastoral empathy, and zeal. He produced instructional materials in Czech for priests and laymen. Výklad víry, for instance, is an “Exposition of the Faith, of the Ten Commandments, and of the Lord’s Prayer.” As you read the following statement from this text, consider how Hus loved God with his mind. He demonstrated that sometimes intellectual piety is costly and dangerous:

Thus, faithful friend, search for the truth, listen to the truth, learn the truth, love the truth, tell the truth, keep the truth, defend the truth until death; for the truth will set your free from sin, from the devil, from the death of soul and from death eternal.

Think, as well, how this admonition applies to us even today.

(For more information about Jan Hus click here.)

My Vision for Anglo-American College (Prague, 2018)

I served as the Interim President of the Anglo-American College (now a university) in Prague, Czech Republic, from November, 1999 to February 2001. AAU is a private, secular university founded in 1991, after the fall of communism. I was a missionary with Global Scholars in Prague from 1995 to 2003. In 2018, I visited the university and delivered these remarks entitled “My Vision for AAU.” Below is an excerpt. This site is dedicated to thinking Christianly, so perhaps these comments to a secular, intellectual audience are interesting and relevant.

Perhaps it is difficult for you to imagine what a pleasure it is for me to be here in Prague again. So many important developments occurred in my life and for my family here.

I taught first in September, 1995 – 1997. I served as President from 1999 – 2001. At this time I became a Founder of the Anglo-American College and the Anglo-American Institute For Liberal Studies. I continue serving on the Founders Board of AAU.

It is a great honor for me to address you today, to share company with people whom I respect, and to share the history of AAU. I hope that I might present a few ideas that could be useful as you develop the long-term trajectory of this school. I will talk briefly about memory and identity.

Institutional Memory
I believe, also, that institutions can forget their past and in this way lose their identity. I have several observations about institutional memory and identity that might be useful as you envision the future. In my thinking my three ideas are interrelated.

The first is the now, old fashioned term, liberal arts or even humanities. There is something intrinsically valuable about learning the past and the ideas of great thinkers. Wisdom from our forbears hinders our pretensions in the present.

I remember joking with my business and humanities students. I told the business students that they had a brain but no heart. I told the humanities students that they were all heart but no brain. Liberal arts, carefully conceived, promote humility and healthy skepticism, a big heart and broad mind.

I have remarked that it would be a shame if AAU produced only soulless technocrats or lifeless bureaucrats or greedy businessmen and women. I am quite serious about this. If AAU produces mostly profit-motivated entrepreneurs, they might advance globalization and their own fortunes, but they might not model integrity or benefit society.

This is why I have urged that programs about social entrepreneurism be established at AAU. I have proposed an annual ethics symposium and required ethics courses in each field. It would be a pity if AAU graduates gain the whole world, but lose their souls.

The second is cultural history, worldview, and religion. When I taught here, I offered courses like comparative religions, comparative worldviews, the Bible as literature, history of Christianity, intellectual history, and business ethics. At that time students were interested in the big questions in life. They were sometimes stunned to learn what the Bible said or what Islam or Hinduism taught, for example. They were amazed to learn about the positive influence of religion in the public square.

At the beginning of a course they would sometimes ask: “Professor, what do you think about this or that”? But, I often said: “What is more important is what you think.” They did not know how to think, but at least they were curious.

Specifically, I think that AAU should encourage Czech and Slovak students to reconnect with their famous Christian forebears, Jan Hus and Jan Amos Komenský. AAU should also urge its European students to re-examine the religious influence upon European culture.

I think, also, that AAU should teach students to think about basic worldview questions, like: Where did I come from? Why I am here? Where I am going? An unexamined life really is not very worthwhile.

The third is dissidence. When I began here, many of my students and their parents had participated in the Velvet Revolution. They were hungry for change and rightfully skeptical of the former controlling narratives. But, is that the same today? Or, are most people no longer thinking at all, except about the next party or short-term pleasure? Are they simply following the story lines laid out for them and playing their part in globalization and consumerism? Is this why AAU exists: to develop this kind of person?

I want AAU to encourage healthy dissidence. I want foreign students to discover Václav Havel, in particular “The Power of the Powerless” and “Letters To Olga.” I want all students to question and push back against the controlling narratives today.

I hope that AAU students resist the trivialization of popular culture promoted so eagerly by consumerism. They should resist the manipulating messages of the consumer matrix: “I shop, therefore I am.” They should resist the distortions produced by social media. They should resist the transforming power of “McWorld,” the unholy alliance of McDonalds and Disneyworld.

I urge AAU to push back against secularization in modern Europe. There is so much to learn from the spiritual and religious legacy of Europe. It is wise to ponder the impact of Christianity and Judaism upon law, human rights, political philosophy, health, the arts, etc.

Back in 1998 I wrote an article about my students for the “New Presence” magazine entitled “My Atheist Students — So-Called.” I found that many atheists and agnostics here embrace a variety of implicit religions. I doubt that this is much different today.

When we lived here, my wife bought me a picture that she felt represents the struggle of religion in this country.  I urge AAU to foster intellectual hospitality that permits students to question the reigning paradigms of naturalism and secularism that squeeze spirituality out of life and the public square.

I do not believe that AAU can or should clone the state educational system’s values, method or message. But, neither should it sell its soul to the highest, foreign bidder. AAU is a distinct, independent entity — almost a verb. We should not forget.

I hope AAU will foster creative dissidence. Promote integrity and social entrepreneurism. Value the liberal arts and encourage students to think about the meaning of life. I suspect, would be education with a difference. This would be AAU.

Four Books About Idolatry

There are many useful books about idolatry, but in this blog I recommend four for your consideration. Each of these books describe the misdriection of mental capacity to unworthy objects and causes.

First, you should begin with Greg Beale’s We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry. The book is an examination of the Old and New Testaments concerning what, how, and why idol worship occurs, as well as its impact. Though the title might sound academic, the text is quite readable and interesting. Beale writes:

What do you and I reflect? . . . God has made humans to reflect him, but if they do not commit themselves to him, they will not reflect him but something else in creation. . . . What people revere, they resemble either for ruin or restoration.

Second, read Jacques Ellul’s The New Demons. The chapter titles tell you what the book is about: Post-Christian Era and Secularization, The Sacred Today, Modern Myths, Secular Religions: Current Religious Attitudes, Secular Religions: Political Religion, and Coda for Christians. His analysis of secular religions and political religion is profound and prophetic. He described two mistakes the church has made:

1) Constantinism: an orientation toward wanting to win over to Christianity the rich, the powerful, the control centers . . . . 2) The cultural mistake: the incorporation into Christianity of all the cultural values. Christianity becomes the receptible for all the civilizations of the past, the establisher of culture and a synthesis of the philosophies.

Third, read Tim Keller’s popular-level book Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, Power, and the Only Hope that Matters. The book is a pastoral discourse on the many idols that define popular culture in the West. Keller writes:

An idol is something we cannot live without. We must have it, and therefore it drives us break rules we once honored, to harm others and even ourselves in order to get it. Idols are spiritual addictions that lead to terrible evil.

Lastly, read Christopher Wright’s “Here Are Your Gods”: Faithful Discipleship in Idolatrous Times. The book begins with description of idolatry in the Bible (like Beale, but simpler). The second section is especially relevant: Political Idolatry Then and Now. The third section is God’s People in an Idolatrous World. Wright says, “idolatry is a very important topic in the Bible — much neglected by contemporary evangelical Christians, partly because we ourselves are unconsciously involved with and sometimes dominated by the false gods of the people around us.” He also asks:

Can there be a sustainable future for a civilization and culture that is built on historic violence and bloodshed, that systemically increases poverty and inequality, that sets nation against nation, that corrodes the foundations of marriage and family, that desecrates God’s creation, and that devalues to the point of meaningless the very concept of public truth?